20 Years Later – Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit
A little over 17 years have passed since grunge-rock band Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died, bringing to an end the revolution that was the Nirvana experience. Today marks another musical milestone in the Nirvana story.
Perhaps the song that had the most influence on bringing Nirvana to the forefront of early 1990s rock culture, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, was performed live by the band for the first time on this day.
Live For The Very First Time
The venue was the OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington. Seattle became the centre of the grunge rock world, with the genre even becoming referred to as the Seattle Sound by some. Besides Nirvana, the city produced a number of other alternative rock outfits around early 1990s, including Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
(A video clip, purporting to be of this very first “Teen Spirit” live performance can be found on YouTube Here: http://youtu.be/soiffolOj5k. I have posted a better quality version of the band playing the song live at the end of this post though.)
Nevermind, It Smells Like Success
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first single taken from Nirvana’s second studio album Nevermind. Despite low expectations by the band and its record label, Nevermind became a surprise success in late 1991, due largely to the popularity of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Nevermind was responsible for bringing alternative rock to a large mainstream audience, and many now regard it as one of the best rock albums of all time.
“SLTS” was not expected to be anything more than a base-building alternative rock song from the album. It was anticipated that the follow-up single “Come As You Are” would be the song that could cross over to mainstream formats. However, campus radio and modern rock radio stations picked up on the track and many placed it on heavy rotation.
Danny Goldberg of Nirvana’s management firm Gold Mountain later admitted that “none of us heard it as a crossover song, but the public heard it and it was instantaneous [. . .]. They heard it on alternative radio, and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it.”
Video Sparked The Revolution
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” went on to become the anthem of teen revolution especially after the iconic video produced for the song found it’s way onto television screens via MTV.
The video shows the band performing the song in front of an initially docile and dispirited group of teens in a school gym. As Cobain goes through the song, the crowd begin to get progressively more involved in the music and the song, and eventually end up moshing and dancing manically around the band, and ends with the crowd breaking into a near riot and smashing the bands’ instruments.
The video went on to win numerous awards for Nirvana, including the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group awards at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and in 2000 the Guinness World Records named “Teen Spirit” the Most Played Video on MTV Europe.
I Wanna Be A Pixie
In a January 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Cobain revealed that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired. He explained: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band— or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido
The lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were often difficult for listeners to decipher, both due to their nonsensicality and because of Cobain’s slurred, guttural singing voice. Much has been said and written in an effort to interpret the words. Cobain has said, “The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas [. . .]. It’s just making fun of the thought of having a revolution. But it’s a nice thought.”
Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl though probably has the true interpretation of the odd lyrics: “Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes.”
Gen-X + Grunge = Teen Nirvana
Regardless of whether Cobain actually intended some deep and symbolic message to come out of the song, or whether he was simply filling up space, the song remains a defining moment in rock history, and will forever be associated with the Generation X-ers of the last decade of the 20th century.